The Disaster Saga, Part 1: Nature Strikes

I feel like starting with the end of the trip because it is freshest in my mind, caused the greatest emotional, mental and physical stress and is a pressing current event in the news right now. People, places and other events that are not already known will be explained later in another page that I will create for this adventure, so look for that soon. A natural disaster was the last thing on our mind the whole trip. We knew people would get sick because of the diet change and the general stress of traveling, we could assume that people would lose belongings at one point or another, we could even picture people getting hurt on an excursion. These things were planned for in some way.

Friday afternoon while some of us were having lunch at Margarita's we thought Margarita was having a good laugh when she told us we weren't going home because of the volcano in Guatemala City erupting the night before. We laughed uneasily, but when she said she was serious and sent her store assistant to get the paper from her shop and we saw the hellish red lava exploding from Mount Pacaya on the front page our hearts sank. Naturally the airport was closed indefinitely and we would have to figure out another way to get home. After being away from home for two weeks, focusing so much energy on the mural and our excursions, the news that we wouldn't be going home Saturday morning hit most of us really hard. Lots of people had plans immediately after returning. Some people had to be out of their apartments by the end of the month, a few had internships in other states that they had to get to, at least one person had a family vacation. Personally I had a performance Monday night that I was disappointed that I would miss. While we sat and watched the news we saw the devastation that Guatemala City was facing as it was covered in ash. The station we were watching was particularly affected because their reporter that was on the scene was killed by a rock that was thrown by the volcano.

When we reconnected with the other students in the group we broke the news to them and started to discuss our options for getting home. Steve came to COFA and told us that the eruption hadn't stopped yet and it could be well over a week before the airport would reopen. Steve gave us some ideas as to the options we had. The first was to simply wait it out, spend up to another week in Guatemala until the eruption ended and the streets and airport opened up again. None of us really saw this as an option. We were all ready to go home and we couldn't afford lodging and food for the extended trip. The other possibility would be to drive to El Salvador on Sunday night and fly out from there Monday. Delta airlines was agreeing to transfer flights to the international airport there but we wouldn't be able to leave until at least Monday. The final option that Steve proposed would be for us to drive to Tapachula, Mexico, get a bus to take us to Mexico City (about a 15 hour drive, with good road conditions) and fly out from the international airport there. The group was split between options. The people that had pressing things to do back home wanted to leave for Mexico City in the morning, while those of us that had a more relaxed time table were mostly content with seeing how things played out until we knew it was safe. Honestly, none of the options were ideal. Leaving immediately meant an increase chance of encountering landslides, flooded roads and riots. Whereas waiting it out allowed for the situation to get worse and chaos in the cities to inspire riots. El Salvador wasn't an ideal place to go either.

Ultimately we all knew we were stuck at COFA for at least another day, so we went to the Goodbye dinner at the Asturias Academy, had some drinks and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up shortly after 6 and found I couldn't get back to sleep. So I took a shower (the first in at least 4 days, hot water was limited), and quietly started packing my luggage just in case we got good news. When my roommate Kate started waking up I asked her if she wanted to join me for breakfast at the nearby Cafe Baviera. Wanting to sleep in a little more, she wanted to wait until 9. So I napped in my bed until Megan knocked on our door. A few more people were stirring so I got up and asked them about breakfast as well. Out in the hallway I saw the caretakers of COFA cleaning the rooms of groups that had checked out that morning. Shortly after 9 Steve arrived and asked us if we knew what was going on. He told us that since we were scheduled to leave at 5am that morning, COFA had already booked our rooms to a large group that was arriving that afternoon and we had to leave immediately. Although this wasn't the good news I was hoping for...I was very glad that I had already packed my things. I helped wake the others and told them to get ready while Steve called one of his many connections to find a place for us to spend the weekend.

Once everyone was ready to go, we waited outside for some taxis to take us to the Black Cat Hostel in downtown Quetzaltenango (Xela). After a long taxi ride that was extended because of the flooded streets from the non-stop rain that started early Friday morning and worsened through the night, four of us arrived at Black Cat. We talked to Phillipe, the barkeeper there who had spoken to Steve and was expecting us. He showed us to the private bedroom they had where we would store our stuff for the time being. The four of us collapsed on the huge bed there and we waited...and waited...and waited...for the rest of the group to join us. After what was probably close to an hour we were finally joined by 4 more...and 4 more and eventually the rest of the group. The continued flooding caused accidents and created major traffic delays for everyone.

We settled in to Black Cat (where I felt quite at home for obvious reasons) and started craving breakfast. We ate at a local breakfast nook down the street and returned to the hostel to rest, watch movies, explore and do some reading. There's not much to say for Saturday besides that I was in wet clothes all day long because my other clothes were either also wet or waaaaaayyyyy too stinky to be considered a humane option. This of course resulted in a cold that I'm still trying to shake. Megan, Kate, Lairen and I ate dinner at the Bar/restaurant Bamboo where we were able to watch some news and see what was going on across the country. The storm had developed into Tropical Storm Agatha by this point and was turning the volcanic ash in Guatemala City into cement. Rivers were over flowing and people were evacuated from their homes into schools and other large buildings at higher ground. We didn't need to understand the language to see the devastation and the affect this would have on thousands of people that were already hurting.

I ended up spending the night at the hotel across the street because the hostel didn't have room for everyone. Jorden, Jean, Hanna, Courtney and I got a room together. Hanna was overjoyed to find that her bedsheets were Superman print from god knows when. Unfortunately the man of steel was not a comfortable bed-mate and Hanna tossed and turned all night.

Before going to bed, I was convinced to join most of the group at a Salsa bar down the street for free salsa lessons and free tequila for the ladies. Wanting to make the best of the situation at hand, I went (although the temptation to stay warm and cozy in my bed was strong). As far as I know this is the only photographic evidence of the night...I'd say it sums things up very well...

Sunday was spent recovering from the previous night with afternoon shopping in the center of town. I found some last minute gifts to bring back to the states, whenever that was going to happen. When I got back to Black Cat I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and watching movies in the television room. When Steve walked in and told us to be ready in an hour, we all scrambled to pack and played the waiting game while they frantically bought tickets.

The plan ended up being very similar to one of the initially proposed ideas. We were going to get a van to take us to take us over the border into Tapachula, Mexico. From there we would fly to Mexico City and divide into groups, some of us going to New York, some to Baltimore and the rest of us to Minneapolis. The Minneapolis group had to be divided into two smaller groups to fit on the available flights. Once the tickets were secured, Steve called a van and we said our goodbye's the the friends that we made at the hostel.

Full gallery of more pictures of Black Cat Hostel and the last pictures before we came home: [gallery]

Next...Part 2: The Journey (the shorter, but more more exciting, last leg of our return home)